Rowan Williams: how Buddhism helps me pray
Former Archbishop of Canterbury reveals intense daily meditation ritual influenced by Buddhism and Orthodox mysticism
He also spends time pacing slowly and repeatedly prostrating himself as part of an intense early morning ritual of silent meditation and prayer.
The normally private former Archbishop has given a glimpse of his personal devotions in an article for the New Statesman explaining the power of religious ritual in an increasingly secular world.
Lord Williams has spoken in the past about how in his youth he contemplated becoming a monk as well as joining the Orthodox church.
He explained that he draws daily inspiration from the practice, common to both the Greek and Russian orthodox churches, of meditating while repeatedly reciting the “Jesus Prayer”, which says: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner”.
“Over the years increasing exposure to and engagement with the Buddhist world in particular has made me aware of practices not unlike the ‘Jesus Prayer’ and introduced me to disciplines that further enforce the stillness and physical focus that the prayer entails,” he explained
“Walking meditation, pacing very slowly and coordinating each step with an out-breath, is something I have found increasingly important as a preparation for a longer time of silence.
“So: the regular ritual to begin the day when I’m in the house is a matter of an early rise and a brief walking meditation or sometimes a few slow prostrations, before squatting for 30 or 40 minutes (a low stool to support the thighs and reduce the weight on the lower legs) with the ‘Jesus Prayer’: repeating (usually silently) the words as I breathe out, leaving a moment between repetitions to notice the beating of the heart, which will slow down steadily over the period.”
Far from it being like a “magical invocation”, he explained that the routine helps him detach himself from “distracted, wandering images and thoughts”, picturing the human body as like a ‘cave’ through which breath passes.
“If you want to speak theologically about it, it’s a time when you are aware of your body as simply a place where life happens and where, therefore, God ‘happens’: a life lived in you,” he added.
He went on to explain that those who perform such rituals regularly could reach “advanced states” and become aware of an “unbroken inner light”.
This Article from Religious Affairs Editor of ‘The Telegraph’, John Bingham, offers a view of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams (now Lord Williams), as a person of prayer. Despite his obviously busy life at the University, Bishop Rowan is wedded to his discipline of rigorous daily prayer and meditation. The fact that he still feels it necessary to resort to this self-discipline speaks volumes about the former archbishop’s spiritual life.
In some ways, Rowan was quite the wrong person to become the Archbishop of Canterbury, His deep spirituality and academic insights – coupled with a clearly liberal sense of justice at the time of his so promising appointment – seemed to be dogged with inhibition against any initiative that was calculated to divide the Anglican Communion Churches – from conservative to liberal, and evangelical to catholic. Some say he was probably too spiritual for the task of an administrator.
A liberal catholic himself, Archbishop Rowan was thought by his similarly inclined contemporaries in the Church to have been the right choice to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, George Carey, whose evangelical provenance had led to a symbiotic relationship with certain Primates of Provincial Churches who were intent on condemning homosexuality as a blot on the escutcheon of Christianity as they interpreted the Scriptures.
Archbishop Rowan’s earliest transgression of his liberal ideology came with the rejection by the conservative Evangelicals in the Church of England of his choice of The Revd.Jeffrey John to become Bishop of Reading. Despite the encouragement of the Bishop of Oxford in choosing Fr.Jeffrey for the Reading suffragan bishopric; Archbishop Rowan decided to formally request J.J. to resile from this position, because of the conservative opposition – both at home and abroad – to his appointment. Father Jeffrey was a partnered gay priest..
From this point onwards in his tenure as Archbishop, ++Rowan was chivvied by the opponents of the inclusion of homosexual clergy in the Church to not do anything that would cause them to join in the growing movement in the mainly African Churches in the Communion towards the establishment of what came to be called the Global South, and ultimately the GAFCON group of Churches, that would eventually form their own conservative Anglican sodality based on what they saw as a biblically-based ‘orthodoxy’ founded on their ‘Jerusalem Statement’, formulated by its constituent membership. This new organisation opted to resile from any association with TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada, on account of their acceptance of gay people as part and parcel of their respective Church bodies. Some Primates of GAFCON also refused to attend the meeting of Lambeth and the Primates Conferences.
Through all of these schismatic tendencies within the Churches of the Communion, Archbishop Rowan was concerned to do what he could as Primus-inter-pares (First among equals) of the Communion Primates to keep the Communion together. Part of his strategy was to help in the construction of the ‘Anglican Covenant’ movement, which sought to set out the basic tenets on which the diverse Anglican Provinces could agree to live together. Unfortunately, this caused some concern amongst the more liberal Churches of the Communion, who refused to be bound together by what they saw as a restrictive embargo against new initiatives in their back-yards – including, those initiatives already embarked upon by TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada in support of the LGBT community in their territorial jurisdiction.
With the setting up of rival Anglican Churches in Canada and North America – by Primates of the Global South/GAFCON Primates, the situation of schismatic separation from the locally-founded TEC and A.C.of C. proceeded apace – independently of the Anglican Consultative Council, which had counselled conservative Provinces of the Communion against such acts of border-crossing.
It was in this atmosphere of division and emerging schismatic activity that the Anglican Covenant Movement stalled. Reaction from both conservative and liberal provinces was generally negative, leading to a Communion-wide tendency to rejection of the Covenant. It was in the wake of this debacle that Archbishop Rowan decided it was time for him to make way for a successor.
One has high hopes of the leadership of Archbishop Justin Welby, whose Evangelical provenance includes a significant influence from his time as a lay-person with the ‘Alpha’ organisation in London. His subsequent ordination as priest led to his time as a Minister of Reconciliation with Coventry Cathedral. In this capacity, he carried out valuable work with the Churches of Africa and their involvement with the oil industry, in which he had previously worked as an executive before his ordination. ++Justin, too, is a prayerful Archbishop, with a Roman Catholic Spiritual Director, and his own links with the monastic movement through the small ecumenical Community he has living with him at Lambeth Palace.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand